Saturday, June 23, 2007

How did you overcome personality differences to get your job done?

Have you ever had to work with someone that you didn’t particularly like
or get along with? How did you overcome personality differences to get
your job done?
This is one of the great interpersonal aptitude questions that investment banking interviewers
love. One insider endured five consecutive two-on-one meetings in her final round of interviews
and encountered this question in every single meeting. There’s a good reason this question
arises so frequently: There are a lot of high-maintenance personalities in this profession and a
lot of potential interpersonal conflict as a result. Be sure that your response to this question
highlights your ability to build relationships despite initial differences in personality or
Bad Answers
Candidate 1: Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a time when that’s
happened. I’m definitely a people person, and I make a real effort to get along
with everyone, especially people that I work with. I can’t really think of a time
that I’ve had difficulty getting along with anyone in a work context.
Finding Your Way
Really? Not even someone in an MBA study group? Someone who you had to work with on
a college project? The chairman of the senior prom planning committee in high school? Surely,
there’s got to be someone out there who’s gotten under your skin just a little bit. You might
think that you’ll win points for declaring that no one—not even Dale Carnegie himself—is
better at winning friends and influencing people than you are. To the contrary, you’ll be better
off if you come clean and provide an example of a time where you’ve had to make a real
effort to overcome personality or opinion differences, as long as you can prove that you kept it
professional and learned something from the experience.
Candidate 2: Well, I didn’t get along with one of the associates that I worked
with at my consulting firm. Even though she was very good at her job, I didn’t
feel as though she was a good manager. She focused way too much on details,
whereas I consider myself much more of a “big picture” person. For example,
she would really get worked up about page formatting and font sizes and things
like that, and I just don’t believe that those types of things really add value.
Eventually, our manager just stopped putting us on teams with each other,
which I think was best considering that she was way more Type A than I was.
As this candidate demonstrates, you can take honesty a bit too far. Not only would you
effectively forfeit an offer if you gave this response, you may not even get a taxi ride back to
your hotel. We just can’t emphasize it enough: Few things are as important to a prospective
analyst or associate than a meticulous attention to detail coupled with a well-sharpened ability
to assuage demanding personalities. If you think that you’d have trouble doing either on a
daily basis, you may seriously wish to rethink your choice of career.
Good Answer
Candidate: I can definitely think of a time when I didn’t get along with
someone in a work setting. As it happens, I ended up getting along with this
individual very well on a personal level once we didn’t have to work together so
Finding Your Way
Provided that you don’t take the same approach as the previous candidate, it may be easier to
describe someone you didn’t like working with rather than someone you didn’t like personally.
When you’re discussing someone you didn’t get along with at work, it’s a little bit easier to be
diplomatic since you can restrict your discussion to differences in work style or management
approach. Loose lips can get the best of you when you’re discussing someone you just don’t like
at all. Just remember: Never bad-mouth anyone, especially a previous employer!
Candidate: During my first 6 months with ABC Consulting, I worked with an
associate who I considered somewhat difficult to work with. When you’re a
business analyst at a consulting firm, the associate on each of your client teams
is effectively your manager, and it’s that individual with whom you work most
closely. As I soon figured out, each associate on each client team has their own
unique requirements for every deliverable, and their own preferred
communication style.
Nice introduction, and it’s no coincidence that the situation the candidate describes is highly
applicable to banking. Now, we’ll see whether or not the candidate can pinpoint the source of
friction without bad-mouthing a former colleague.
Candidate: Providing specific, actionable feedback was not this particular
associate’s strength. When I would submit either written or quantitative analysis
for her review, she would often return it to me with entire sections circled and
comments that read, “rework this section.” No specifics. No details. No idea
what particular aspect of the project she wanted me to rework, or what constituted
reworking. As a new business analyst, you can imagine that this would
have been particularly frustrating. If I had been a more tenured analyst at the
time, I may have had a better frame of reference for what I needed to do and
how best to do it, but I certainly didn’t have that kind of clarity 3 months into
the job.
Interviewer: So did you approach her and ask her to provide you with more
specific feedback?
Finding Your Way
Candidate: Yes. When I asked for more specific feedback, it became clear that
she expected me to do things exactly the way she would have done them if she
were the analyst. To give you a little bit of background, this associate had been
one of those “star” analysts who was promoted early. She had been so successful
as an analyst that I think she may have had difficulty transitioning into a role
with more managerial responsibility.
Interviewer: I can definitely understand your frustration with her feedback, but
since she had been a particularly effective analyst—while you were brand new
on the job—shouldn’t you have done things the way she advised?
Candidate: Well, I definitely would have tried to produce work according to
her expectations if I understood exactly what those expectations were. But as I
mentioned before, that was part of the problem: She wasn’t specific enough in
her feedback. In addition, I don’t think she recognized that not every analyst
approaches the work process exactly the same way. She would usually insist that
you do things exactly the way she would have done them, regardless of whether
it was the most efficient way for you to get things done in that particular situation.
And sometimes, I just didn’t agree with the way she felt the information
should be organized in the final deliverables. As the analyst, you’re a lot closer
to the underlying data, and so you have a better sense of how it should fit
together. I just didn’t feel as though she trusted my judgment, which made it
difficult to work with her.
At this point, alarm bells are starting to sound in the interviewer’s head. The candidate
started off strong by describing a situation that’s highly relevant to the job for which she’s
interviewing, but now the interviewer is concerned about her ability to take direction. At the
associate level, she’ll be expected to follow the vice president’s lead on deal teams. (Remember
our discussion about the investment banking hierarchy?)
Interviewer: Okay. So you’ve explained how you didn’t completely agree with
her management style. But exactly how did that affect your working relationship?
Finding Your Way
You can disagree with someone’s management style but still get along with that
person. How did your differences make it difficult to get the job done?
Candidate: We just went back and forth a lot with each other. It wasn’t emotional
or anything; it was just frustrating. She’d give me a round of comments,
and I wouldn’t understand them, so I would go into her office and ask her to
walk me through her edits. We’d sit down, and after a while, she’d tell me how
she thought I could organize the data into the final product. I’d suggest a
different way based on my understanding of the information, and she’d stand
her ground. It was clear that I wasn’t the only one who was frustrated. She was
a new associate, and I was a new analyst. I think that was the main problem.
Neither of us was comfortable in our new role.
Interviewer: So what did you do? How did you get past all of the frustrations
to do what you needed to do for the client?
The interviewer is still trying to probe whether or not the candidate is likely to be a loose
cannon on a transaction team.
Candidate: At the end of the day, she was the boss. If I provided solid reasons
for my approach and she disagreed, I just had to live with that. It was her name
going on the final document, and she was senior to me. I didn’t love working
with her, but in the end, it was a lot easier to just do what I was told.
Nice recovery. Exceptional junior bankers consistently demonstrate good judgment: They
know when to speak up and when to keep quiet and get the job done. You never want to give
the interviewer the impression that you inherently resent authority, or (even worse) and that
you’ve had trouble managing upward in other situations.
Interviewer: Did you ever have to work with her again?
Candidate: She wasn’t on any of my teams for another year. In the interim, we
got along great on a personal level. The next time we worked together, she had
Finding Your Way
more managerial experience under her belt, and I was a more senior analyst. I
had a better sense of what I was doing, and she had more confidence in my
ability because I had developed a track record for producing quality work. Our
next project together went a lot more smoothly. And we’re still good friends;
we’ve actually kept in touch since I left ABC.
The candidate ties this up nicely; not only does she understand why the friction occurred
initially, but her responses confirm that she didn’t allow professional differences to become
personal ones. Remember, banking is a relationship business. When you respond to interpersonal
aptitude questions, it’s always best to present yourself as someone who builds
relationships, rather than someone who’s likely to burn bridges.

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